The notion of a writer rewriting history isn’t particularly new.
Robert Harris’ ‘Fatherland’ famously imagined what Berlin in 1964 would have been like if the Nazis had won the Second World War.
However it takes a brave or foolish writer to rewrite Irish history.
But that is exactly what Hugh Travers has done for the Irish television station TV3 in its 1916 drama ‘Trial of the Century’ which aired tonight.
The premise is simple.
Instead of court-martialling and executing the Easter Rising leaders, what would have happened if the British had tried Padraig Pearse in front of a jury?
Directed by Maurice Sweeney, the first episode of ‘Trial of the Century’ moved along at a brisk pace.
A low budget production, Sweeney and his Director of Photography Ronan Fox have made a decent fist of limited locations – the action is largely confined to a courtroom, a side room and a cell in Kilmainham Jail.
Tom Vaughn-Lawlor, best known as the gangland anti-hero Nidge in RTE’s ‘Love Hate’, is cast as Pearse.
At the start of the drama, he is visited in prison by Frankie McCafferty’s Father Aloysius Travers who debates with him the risk he is taking with the lives of his comrades by referring in a letter to a German expedition setting sail.
Meanwhile Andrew Bennett’s prosecuting barrister, Sebastian Banks works hard to persuade Eamonn Hunt’s General Maxwell of the merits of trying Pearse in court instead of executing the rebel leaders for treason.
“Give them a public trial. We can dismantle them publicly,” he argues.
Maxwell is persuaded and a trial begins, with Denis Conway’s Edward Greene defending Pearse and Mark Huberman’s George Gavan Duffy also on the defence team.
However, there are tensions between Pearse and Greene, with the rebel leader constantly criticising his counsel’s tactics and questioning his commitment to his cause.
The main planks of the prosecution case are that Pearse was the key leader of the rebellion; he betrayed the Realm in its greatest hour of need during the First World War; he and the rebel leaders abandoned the principles of democracy; they unduly endangered the lives of soldiers and civilians and caused the deaths of hundreds of people.
Banks says Pearse will be portrayed during the trial as “a fanatic.. hellbent on his own blood sacrifice”.
Episode One focused on the prosecution case and it consisted of evidence from Stephen Hogan’s Major General General William Lowe, the Nationalist MP John Redmond, a soldier who had allegations about Roger Casement, a woman whose husband in the British Army was killed during the Rising, another Dublin woman whose two year old was shot in his pram, a disaffected IRB member and Eoin MacNeill.
Greene managed to land punches in the early exchanges, casting doubt on Major General Lowe’s claim that Pearse surrendered because the rebels were surrounded and questioning the reliability of Ruairdhri Conroy’s Royal Irish Rifles witness, Private Bailey.
Pearse’s barrister also objected to the trailing of relatives of civilians killed during the Rising before the court, claiming it was a cynical attempt to manipulate the jury.
Probably one of the best moments in the first episode came from Aoibhinn McGinnity, best known as Trish (Nidge’s wife) in ‘Love Hate’.
She portrayed a working class Dublin woman Catherine Foster describing the death of her two year old son.
“I just screamed. I couldn’t get any words out,” she sobbed, wishing she could have shouted that her baby had been shot.
With Greene warning Pearse to expect the prosecution to sling mud at him, it inevitably came during the cross-examination of Anthony Brophy’s Eoin MacNeill who revealed he was opposed to the Rising because in his view “it would have been irresponsible to send volunteers to certain failure. I did everything in my power to stop it.”
Describing Pearse as a romantic at heart, MacNeill defended him from Banks’ claim that he had tried to “poison young minds” by teaching boys about the nobility of being a warrior.
However he was puzzled when the prosecution raised a question around Pearse’s sexuality, asking if he had ever been seen with a woman.
Then, when asked how Pearse reacted to news of his wedding, MacNeill admitted the rebel leader almost wept but, realising what was being implied, he stuttered that that was because the the accused believed marriage would interfere with his colleague’s work in the Gaelic League.
Earlier John Olohan’s John Redmond argued that in his view Pearse’s act of treason was not against the Realm but actually against Home Rule which had already been achieved and had been put on hold until the First World War was won.
The first episode ended with Pearse sacking Greene, arguing his counsel, as a moderate nationalist, regarded his client as a fanatic.
“You tolerate the scandal because you agree with it,” he berated Greene.
“You think I am a radical. You are a man of their laws, their rules.”
Over the next two nights, ‘Trail of the Century’ will examine the case for the defence and then a celebrity jury will debate the case.
As dramatic experiments go, ‘Trial of the Century’ is certainly interesting – even if it comes across, at times, a bit stiff and too theatrical.
In some ways it resembles an Irish costume drama version of the 1970s ITV daytime drama series ‘Crown Court’.
Unfortunately Travers’ script races through the evidence at such a pace, you wish Sweeney and his cast had more time and budget to develop some of the testimonies and forensically examine them.
In the rush to get through a lot of witnesses, some of the performances never really get going – both Bennett and Conway as the rival barristers really don’t get much of a chance to shine.
Ruairdhri Conroy’s brief appearance as Private Bailey, in particular, leaves you wishing there was more time to fully explore the allegations made by his discredited soldier.
As for Tom Vaughan Lawlor, he certainly captures the look of Pearse and also his fierce dedication to the cause.
Thankfully, he is able to cast off the shadow of Nidge.
However the real test will come in the second episode as his character takes on the role of defending himself in court.
After it’s opening act, the jury’s still out on ‘Trial of the Century’ but for all its flaws and limitations, Episode One has done just about enough to justify that you keep watching.
(Dan McGinn is the resident film critic on Belfast 89FM’s ‘Saturday Bites’ programme and has a film and TV blog, They’ll Love It In Pomona – http://loveitinpomona.blogspot.co.uk/?m=1)